Prometheus, snugly bound: The institutional barriers against scientific risk-taking

A nice piece about the systemic challenges facing academic biologists appeared in Olivia Judson’s blog, The Wild Side. The post, entitled Letting Scientists Off the Leash, was written by Stephen Quake, an HHMI investigator currently working at Stanford University. Rather than excerpt the item itself, I’ll reproduce the commentary of our friend and former contributor Lev Osherovich, at his blog William Butler Yeast:

Steve Quake has a totally spot-on op-ed piece in the NY Times Science blog about the medieval economics of academic science. In brief, competition for scarce funding together with the role of university bureaucracies as intellectual slumlords traps researchers in an endless grant-writing cycle that demands conformity and quashes creativity. One of the commentators correctly points out that this state of affairs is a consequence of massive overproduction of Ph.D. scientists.

I’m not in complete agreement with everything Quake says. In particular, I think he massively understates the extent to which private foundations are subject to the same conservatism as government agencies. Granted, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute does allow its investigators a lot of freedom, but one can only get an HHMI grant after succeeding for a decade or more at the plodding drudgery of NIH grant-writing. This generates a sort of Peter Principle effect: a professor is rewarded for long-term success at inside-the-box thinking by finally being let outside of the box and told that they can do whatever they want. Sadly, a dog that has been chained in the same spot for a long time will tend to stay in that spot long after they’re let “off the leash.”

Also, he has a weird understanding of what a “market” is, which makes for some strange reading in the middle of the piece.

I’m willing to give him a lot of latitude, however, since he’s so compelling on his main theme of institutional barriers to creativity in extramurally funded research. He even suggests a fairly straightfoward solution: rather than forcing scientists to support their own wages and their lab funding from the same grant-derived pot, simply guarantee their salary and let them apply for grants for resources beyond that minimum amount. That way, scientists won’t be gambling their ability to pay the mortgage on each grant proposal, and they’ll be more likely to take genuine risks.

(It’s worth mentioning that Quake is a recipient of the prestigious HHMI investigator award. If he thinks the situation is bad, then it’s bad.)

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One comment

  1. Pity that comments are no longer being accepted at the original article (apparently 189 scientists is too much for them to handle!)

    Anyway, one of the things I take issue with, is Quake’s handling of the grant-writing process. He essentially comes out strongly on the side of “every hour we spend writing grants is wasted time when we could be being creative instead”.

    I don’t know about Quake, you, or anyone else, but for me the grant-writing process IS creative. Right after submitting a grant is when I do some of my best science, because it forces you to focus on what the important questions are, and to really crystallize a bunch of ideas and think about how to answer the question in a concrete way, instead of it just remaining as an abstract concept.

    Sure, we need creativity, but creativity is useless without reduction-to-practice, and grant writing often provides a very useful mechanism to force people into delivering on their ideas. Anyone can have ideas, some of them even “outside the box”, but only the truly gifted can DELIVER on those ideas when pressured to do so. As long as science remains a mainstay of western economies, the delivery bit is kinda important!

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